Helping Farmers From Space

This year’s Climate and Society class is out terminational  the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

By Manuel Brahm, C+S ’15

Imagine a drought year for a small farmer. Crops, the money he invested and his yearly source of income is lost. How can he be helped? Maybe he could ask his family or neighbors, but what if his community depends on agriculture and has the same problem. Is there a way to help from space? It might sound weird, but yes.

Of course, there are other options available to farmers. Insurance can be a good way to help deal with the problems that drought poses. It’s simple: you buy insurance and when you have losses the insurance company goes to verify your losses and pays you accordingly.

NASA's Global Precipitation Monitoring constellation of satellites. Credit: NASA

NASA’s Global Precipitation Monitoring constellation of satellites. Credit: NASA

But wait, you don’t need satellites for that. There’s a catch, though. If you are a small farmer and the visits to corroborate your losses makes that your insurance premium too expensive, it’s not exactly accessible.

There’s another way forward, though, call index insurance that makes insurance accessible to small farmers even in remote places.

It uses a weather index, such as rainfall estimates, to determine payouts. That means the insurance company doesn’t need to visit to determine his damages and instead uses climate information to calculate the payouts. This climate information can come from rain gauge data, but the problem is that meteorological stations are not available everywhere, especially in developing countries.

Here is where the help from space comes in. Remote sensing can help meaningfully address poverty as long as you know its strengths and weaknesses.

“Satellites have an enormous amount of potential to help index insurance scale up across the developing world,” Dan Osgood said. “They are far from being magic, but they aren’t garbage either.”

Osgood runs the Financial Instruments Sector Team (FIST) at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

Although success with satellites has allowed index insurance programs to expand, remotely sensed data can often have large inaccuracies and it certainly cannot be applied blindly over all landscapes, especially when they estimate rain in a high resolution.

Even if satellite rainfall estimates have error, with proper verification this information can be used. The indexes verification uses physical on-site validation by experts, rain gauges and farmers’ information. This is what FIST has been working on.

Brahm_VegIndexSo, using information about past bad rainfall years from satellite estimates and validating it with on-site data, FIST has managed to use to create index insurance products to help farmers.

If satellite products are not verified for large-scale insurance projects, large numbers of farmers may be hurt by products that do not work. But this validation is costly and time-consuming, making further scale up prohibitively expensive.

FIST is working in this problem, and again the help could come from space. The idea is to use a variety other types of satellite products such as soil moisture, different vegetation health products and high resolution imagery for the validation process. For example, a vegetation index might show locations where satellite rainfall estimates are not capturing drought years accurately. Each of the different products can provide a new piece of information about conditions on the ground, reducing the need for physical validation! Making that index insurance projects can be scale up and help more and more low-income farmer around the world.

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